Treasures of the Library

Audubon's "Birds of America"

Created by one of the world’s foremost naturalists, the paintings of John James Audubon depict the wilds of North America and the creatures inhabiting it.

Audubon was born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1785, and sent to France as a young boy. It was here where he developed his love of nature and an aptitude for drawing birds. When he reached the age of 18, his father sent him to America to avoid conscription into Napoleon’s war and to enter into business.

Audubon’s fascination with the natural world continued into his adult years. His passion for the portraiture of birds from across the continent combined his talents as both artist and scientist. Beginning in the 1820s, Audubon travelled the United States and into Canada. He created 435 paintings of over 450 species of birds, each life-sized, from the smallest hummingbird to the grandest pink flamingo. “Birds of America” reproduced these paintings as colour plates originally sold through subscription

The Library will be featuring a new plate from Audubon’s “Birds of America” monthly. These digitized images demonstrate the best traits of Audubon’s work, from his keen eye for colour to his attention to the detail of each bird’s form, plumage and movement.

Artistic process

Audubon painted the original portraits in North America. The paintings were then sent to England. There, the engraver and printer Havell produced the images through copperplate etching and hand-applied water colour. The collection is now commonly known as the “double elephant folio” edition. This moniker is a direct reference to the impressive size of the paper on which the plates were produced, measuring about 100 cm tall by 70 cm wide. The complete run of plates was sent to subscribers in 87 sets of 5 plates each.

“Birds of America” in the Library’s collection

The “Birds of America,” as this series of plates is known, holds a special place in the Library of Parliament’s collection. The current set is the Library’s third exemplar. The Legislative Council of Canada and the Legislative Library acquired the first two as complete sets from Audubon in 1842. He was visiting Kingston, which was the capital at the time. These two sets were moved when the legislature relocated to Montréal. They were lost to fire when Parliament was burned by protesters in 1849. The present copy was acquired in 1857 after the Library of Parliament approached Audubon’s family for a replacement set.

Its reacquisition was significant for the Library. Besides replacing the copies that had been destroyed, the new copy represented an important topic of the day. Part of the Library’s role is to collect and provide access to information on topics important to Parliament or that have an impact on Canada. This copy of the “Birds of America” was purchased during a time of interest and great discovery in natural history and biology. Authors such as Darwin and Mendel were introducing ground-breaking ideas. Audubon’s “Birds of America” was considered the premier work on ornithology available at the time, making its content as important to Parliament as its value as a beautiful artefact.

In fact, it is still considered an excellent resource. “Birds of America” contains representations of several species of birds that have since become extinct. The Library’s copy also contains some unique features such as composite plate, in which Audubon added additional details to the plate, and some notes and sketches in the margins that Audubon may have inserted himself.

Restoration and conservation of the plates

Originally four enormous volumes, the Library’s copy of the “Birds of America” suffered wear and tear from years of use. The Library partnered with the Canadian Conservation Institute in the 1980s and 1990s to preserve the condition of the plates. The Institute rebound the plates in 17 smaller volumes made specifically to ensure the long-term preservation of the work. Bleeder pages interleaved each plate to prevent bleed-through of colour from one plate to another. Special inserts were also placed along the spine to reduce pressure on the bound edge of each plate.

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